AS MANUFACTURERS RAPIDLY transition to digital-manufacturing models, at least 70% find themselves mired in “pilot purgatory” with Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) deployments that are field tested and functional but fail to scale. According to research from management consultancy McKinsey & Company, New York, NY (mckinsey.com), digital manufacturing is a top priority for 68% of manufacturing executives, with many of them running pilots, in some cases involving as many as eight different technologies. Only 30%, however, have moved beyond this phase, even after achieving good results from the pilot. If you’re caught in a pilot-purgatory trap, how do you escape?
The biggest stumbling block in scaling IIoT projects is a failure to prove business value at the end of the pilot. The metrics of enterprise-value creation are closely tied to the process that led to the pilot selection in the first place. The most successful pilot projects tend to spring from a specific stimulus. This allows the project managers to prove value—by solving the original problem—and project accurate costs and benefits into the scaling process. If a pilot project is based purely on data gathering, then the value delivery won’t be realized. The key to success is to focus on small wins and validate proof points, then widen the focus to the big picture.
Enterprise culture is often a major contributor to creating IIoT pilot purgatory. There are practical approaches to resolve this. McKinsey recommends building practitioner communities, including digital-change agents, data scientists, data engineers, and IT architects, as well as “translators” to work as liaisons between technical experts and businesspeople. The overall aim is to combine new capabilities with existing ones, rather than switch skill sets out entirely.
While a pilot project shouldn’t need universal buy-in before proceeding, it’s important to consider IT functions. If the pilot project requires competing technological solutions or incompatible infrastructure, making them work together may not be possible, even when it involves the most valuable solution. Including IT from the outset will ensure there are no unpleasant surprises and may generate some synergies as a byproduct.
Every enterprise is different, but all need a strong framework and robust governance, something that can be exploited when piloting IIoT technologies. Building centralized structures that record and transmit successful working practices and insights through the organization can have a dramatic effect. These use cases can be graded in maturity terms, enabling those projects that are at the scaling stage to be easily replicated throughout the organization. This approach not only “cheerleads” the best approaches but ensures that duplication and/or confusion don’t occur.
Although a robust internal operational and technology knowledge base is essential for any major deployment, there is often a temptation to get carried away with shiny new technologies in a pilot scenario. This can lead to a solution-in-search-of-a-problem syndrome, in addition to spiraling costs that soak up resources and lead to an incomplete project that can’t scale (or prove value) without significant additional funding.
The key is to use established IIoT solutions and platforms that allow internal experts to focus on solving business and operational problems, rather than resolving technological bugs. Paying attention to emerging IIoT standards will be helpful here, especially if existing partnerships or vendor agreements already point the way—low technological friction is key at the testbed stage. According to CapGemini, Paris, France (capgemini.com), more than 50% of organizations say that uncertain standards are a significant challenge to IIoT implementation.
Overall, there are as many reasons for IIoT pilot failure to scale as there are enterprises running trials. The high-level path to success is to make sure conditions are right from the outset, rather than running interesting micro-projects, then looking to scale at the end. The ability to escape pilot purgatory relies on initial decisions that influence the pilot project. Focus on identifying the most complementary use case and aligning internal resources to favor the outcome, rather than creating dispute. Choose the most suitable technology to deliver a positive outcome. Collaboration and partnership are key to internal and external IIoT success.
Martin Keenan is the technical director at Avnet Inc., Phoenix (avnet.com). He assists design engineers in addressing the latest technical challenges, including designing for IIoT manufacturing.